Ah, salt. The tasty ingredient that gets so much hate. Salt gets a bad rap for raising blood pressure, causing hypertension, and swelling. Might as well lump salt in with butter, bacon, and eggs when it comes to foods being labeled as “bad” (and by the way, I’m against labeling food as “good” and “bad”). But I’m here to say that salt is an essential nutrient, an electrolyte, that our bodies and hormones need to thrive. Yes, salt is not the enemy (nor are butter, bacon and eggs!) we all make it out to be, and I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I hear someone tell me their doc told them to adopt a low-sodium diet.
We need salt!
What is salt and sodium?
Salt is a mineral from the sea. It is composed of sodium and chloride, with sodium making up about 40% of salt.
If you’ve ever had an electrolyte drink, most likely it will include salt because your body needs it for hydration. This is because sodium is an electrolyte, an essential mineral that supports many key functions of the body. In addition to sodium, electrolytes include calcium, magnesium, chloride, bicarbonate, phosphorus, and potassium. These minerals are different from other kinds of minerals because they carry an electrical charge (source). If you’re already dehydrated, you cannot hydrate by drinking plain water – you need electrolytes, which include sodium.
Electrolytes help regulate fluid balance in the body, help the muscles contract, support the nervous system, and balance pH levels.
Quality of salt
There are different kinds of salts and quality matters. Table salt and sea salt are vastly different in terms of quality. Table salt is highly processed, which means that many of the healthy properties have been destroyed by the time it gets into the cute little shaker on your table. Table salt may contain anti-caking chemicals including sugar, iodine, MSG, and aluminum derivatives.
While iodine is not necessarily a “bad” ingredient, it can be dangerous in excess amounts. Iodine affects the thyroid, and for some it’s the key element the thyroid needs to thrive. But for others, it can create thyroid issues, meaning they will want to avoid iodized salt. Adding iodine to your diet is very nuanced, so read more about thyroid balance here.
Sea salt, on the other hand, can provide many health benefits. Some of the sea salts include Himalayan sea salt, Celtic sea salt, volcanic sea salt and more. Personally, I like using Redmond’s Real Salt. If you are able to find this brand, you’ll notice a lot of different colors, not just white. This means there are lots of different minerals available in the salt. Sea salts are mined from the sea and contain many trace minerals and lots of flavor. Try some different varieties!
What does salt do for the body?
Sodium, which is a component of salt, is an important mineral needed for heart function, digestion, kidney function, cell communication, bone health, hydration, and adrenal health. It also supports healthy thyroid function, healthy blood sugar balance, and healthy weight. In fact, restricting salt too much can create stress on the body as the body then has to re-balance. When salt is depleted, the kidneys will actually start to hang onto sodium in the system. We also tend to crave more sugar and carbohydrates when we restrict our salt too much.
In addition to experiencing sugar and carbohydrate cravings, you may also experience salt cravings due to the need your body develops. You might have also noticed that it’s hard to over-eat really salty foods – too much salt just doesn’t taste good. Your body is smart and has mechanisms in place for balancing out the amount of salt in your system. Our brains help to regulate how much salt we eat and eliminate. If our bodies need more salt, it leads to salt cravings and thirst. When we have excess sodium, the kidneys readjust by absorbing less sodium, and the excess is excreted through urine.
And side note – if you’re struggling with sugar cravings, try adding more salt/salty foods to your diet and see what happens to your cravings!
Salt and our hormones
Following a low salt diet over time can affect our blood sugar health and adrenal health. We’ve already discussed how salt restriction can lead to sugar and carbohydrate cravings. If we give into those cravings, we can wreak havoc on our blood sugar hormones, causing imbalances in the hormones insulin and cortisol. High insulin levels can stimulate androgen hormones, which can mess with our menstrual cycles and cause symptoms like acne. You can read more about androgens here.
Insulin is also inflammatory, and inflammation has been linked to hormonal imbalances, irregular and painful periods (more on that here). Beyond affecting our hormones, dysregulated blood sugar creates many other health issues.
Our adrenal health relies on sodium as well. When sodium is low, the adrenals make the hormone aldosterone, which alerts the kidneys to hang onto sodium. However, this process also makes your body waste potassium, which can be detrimental to your heart, nerves, and muscles. In addition to this, a depletion of sodium causes the adrenals to produce adrenaline and cortisol, which are our fight or flight hormones. Chronically high levels of cortisol deplete the body’s hormone DHEA, which is needed to make estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. High cortisol can also increase our blood sugar levels and our LDL cholesterol. This can eventually lead to health issues like weight gain, thyroid issues, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Plot twist!
When these stress hormones are increased and prioritized by the adrenals, the body puts our steroid hormones on the back burner. What exactly does this mean?
Let’s say you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, or hypertension, by your doctor and been told to reduce sodium indefinitely. You read labels, avoid salting your food, and (perhaps begrudgingly) get used to your new diet and follow this recommendation long-term. You gradually stress out your adrenals over time by having them constantly trying to balance sodium in the body. Your adrenals eventually become burnt out, or fatigued. This can lead to hormonal and menstrual issues, which you can read more about here.
Let’s say you have female organs and you reach menopause and you experience hot flashes, night sweats, mood disturbances, and other unpleasant symptoms that menopause famously brings about. This is because by the time you get to menopause, your adrenals, which are supposed to take over for your ovaries when you are no longer fertile, are worn out from having to adjust to chronically low sodium levels, and can’t keep up with their new responsibilities. You are now experiencing adrenal fatigue, which is in turn creating hormonal imbalances and unpleasant menopausal symptoms.
How much salt should we consume?
Currently, the recommended daily limit is 2,300 mg of sodium (about 1 teaspoon of salt) a day. For those who have high blood pressure, the recommendation is even lower – 2/3 teaspoon a day. It’s a common recommendation of healthcare practitioners to tell their patients to reduce or avoid sodium if they are older or struggling with high blood pressure or heart issues. This recommendation could be causing more harm than good considering the importance of sodium for our health.
As for how much to consume, follow your salt cravings on this one. Salt is a great way to add pleasure and taste to our food and it’s hard to go overboard. If we over-salt, it just doesn’t taste good. We likely need more like twice as much as the recommendation (3,000-5,000mg of sodium per day).
Turn to quality salts like unprocessed sea salt and eat your salt in the context of a healthy and nutritious diet.